Occulting Balzac’s Catherine and the Nature of Novels

Allan Pasco
University of Kansas

To suggest that a novel is a relatively long, literary prose fiction is by no means to set the genre in concrete, for the novel is a living, thus changing, form and cannot be immobilized. There are many ways that exemplars of the genre can vary their constituent parts within its encompassing form, without changing its generic essence. Just as Molière pushed several of his comedies to the edge of tragedy without making a muddle, so novels frequently play on the conventions of essays, poetry, theatre, and, indeed, the short story. Considerable variance is possible even when novelists limit their creativity to concentrated work on a sequence of plot and character—what Aristotle called narration. It is not unusual for novelists to invent a device or attribute or arrangement that, for a while, looks very different from other novels. One might remember the epistolary novel that was so popular in the eighteenth century. I also think of the experimental efforts of Nouveaux Romanciers and Oulipo that were so startling from the 1950s through the 1970s and yet seem so tame today. Narrative armatures recounting the sequences of birth to death or crisis to resolution, childhood to maturity, mystery to discovery, rags to riches, boy meets girl, departure to arrival, or in one way or another take a problem to resolution are probably the most common arrangements, but in most cases the order of the plot could easily be radically changed. Father Goriot could have been healed during a period when young Rastignac applied himself and became a successful lawyer. Francis Macomber could have become old and senile, while Michel, the immoralist, could have turned into a goal oriented world beater. Although possible plots are few in number, according to Victor Propp and Claude Bremond, those basic structures can be ordered causally or temporally or otherwise, making use of different details in order to create something that seems quite different from novels arranged in other fashions. As the Russian Formalists pointed out, plots need not be arranged with the cause placed first and the effect at the end. The Nouveau Romanciers demonstrated conclusively that many other arrangements are possible.

For a work to be considered a masterpiece, it must appear well-written, or effectively arranged, in conformity with whatever the period believes to signal expert writing, but there is another requirement: outstanding works of art must deal with ideas that seem significant in a way that seems new.  Novelty is important, especially with the novel. “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Sugar is sweet / And so are you” may be a poem; it may even be art, but it fails because it is formally and aesthetically impoverished. No widely read “informant” would clamor for the public to recognize that it is great art. Likewise, in the midst of activity by characters sufficiently complex to draw and hold our attention, without the work seeming preachy, at least by today’s standards, it must turn around important matters. Usually writers raise the intellectual level of their works by the expedient of exploiting the potential of another level of meaning. The colors in the descriptions of A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) work well as simple, descriptive details, for example, but Proust by repeating them in significant contexts makes them take on symbolic import. Similarly, the actions of the characters in Anthony Burgess’sClockwork Orange (1962) parallel the cruelty of mature adults and seem even more appallingly evil against our deep-seated Rousseauistic belief that children are innocent. And, likewise, the empty lives recounted in Julio Cortásar’sRayuela (1963) reflect those of many people; and the characters in Balzac’sGobseck (1835) seem typical of the July Monarchy, if not of all time, and so on. In every case, the basic story must attract and keep readers, but the value of the book resides in the symbolic, philosophic, sociological, historical, and, in the end, aesthetic level of meaning that expert readers recognize. And it must be presented in a way that seems innovative and interesting.

It is, of course, not enough for a writer to want his story to carry the burden of more or deeper meaning than the simple plotline of adultery in Madame Bovary. Somehow, Flaubert had to go beyond stylistic excellence and realistic portrayal and make the reader understand that he had the middle class in his sights. Indeed, he was forced to make the beggar so striking that the abhorrent mendicant’s repeated appearances assume and communicate his importance and his significance to the novel as a whole.1 The context of the mine in Germinal and the repeated allusions to its character as an anthropophagic monster, similar to the village fiend, Jeanlin, who murders the soldier and tortures the innocent rabbit, Pologne, point to a full range of horror. The brutal death of the rabbit stirs the terrorist Souvarine to action, and the reader remembers how “civilized” Europe had sliced and diced Poland. Etienne bears a name that corresponds to the English “Stephen,” and goes off at the end as an apostle bearing an anti-bourgeois gospel of death and destruction.2 In every case, the context of particular episodes communicates the possibility of a particular, conceptual meaning that gains substance as the signifying element is repeated in the subsequent story.

Perhaps the simplest way of making a novel seem new, even revolutionary, is to avoid using a character and a reasonably unified story as the central focus. Honoré de Balzac became expert at spinning the paradigm of technical possibilities. One of the most interesting occurred when he turned from the two major Aristotelian categories of plot and character to a focal theme, the case in his Sur Catherine de Médicis. Balzac was sensitive to the technical experiments that he found in his favorite Renaissance writers. Certainly, the nineteenth-century French novelist had a well-known and deep-seated love of the Renaissance,3 which resulted in such masterpieces as the long novel, Sur Catherine de Médicis—1830-42), the short masterpiece, “Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu” (1831), and the delightful collection of tales, the Contes drolatiques(1832-37). This affinity goes far deeper than mere affection or influence resulting in the ghosts of a few “borrowed” themes and stories, however. I want to suggest that more importantly he owed to the Renaissance a kind of occult structuring that he used increasingly as the years went by and as he gained more confidence in his genius. Whether he also owed to the Renaissance his political position advocating the brutal use of pure power is less clear, both because the Stalins, the Maos, and the Hitlers are by no means limited to the Renaissance, and because he couched his political message obliquely. Today the immodest proposal that Balzac put forward in Sur Catherine would be termed fascist, though in fact it owes less to the political right or left than to the willingness to build a power base on a foundation of blood.

René Bray’s discussion of the organization that I have in mind turned particularly on lyric poetry which, he says, though “[s]oumise aux règles générales de la poésie, . . . se passe
de toute règlementation particulière. . . . Elle n’est pas soumise à l’exacte raison. . . .  Elle échappe à la règle stricte: en particulier elle se donne les apparences du désordre dans les successions de faits et les liaisons d’expressions, pour mieux faire sentir l’emportement du génie qui la compose.  Mais ce désorder n’est qu’un order supérieur et caché.  Elle ne ‘sort de la raison’ que pour ‘mieux entrer dans la raison.”4 In fact, of course, the only reason it seems “caché” is that it is unusual, in that it neglects centralized plot and character. Once one admits the possibility of a sequential thematic armature, Sur Catherine de Médicis holds few mysteries. Although Bray felt that seventeenth century literary sensibilities moved beyond this kind of arrangement as they turned toward classicism, several major critics have demonstrated the contrary.5 Still, there is no doubt that it is particularly apparent in Renaissance literature.  While perhaps most obvious in the elegies, odes, and other lyric forms that Bray cites, it is unquestionably an integral part of the creative world of Rabelais and Marguerite de Navarre, whose works Balzac knew well.

Sur Catherine de Médicis demonstrates the kind of structure that Bray describes. It is furthermore significant that the structure is well integrated into the subject matter of the novel.  The novel successfully brings all aspects of the creation to focus on a single, though complex reality to create a portrait of power. Although Albert-Marie Schmidt insisted without justifying his contention that Sur Catherine was a “[s]ymphonie formée de trois morceau distincts (mais rigoureusement composés entre eux),”6 the standard view of the novel is quite different.  Claudie Bernard, for example, says, “Sur Catherine de Médicisne forme même pas, en soi, un ensemble; ce pot-pourri . . . nous présente Catherine a quatre moments intermittents de son existence.”7 Nicole Cazauran supports such a position when she traces the genesis of the work in detail.8  First, in 1830, Balzac wrote “Les Deux Rêves,” which twelve years later became the concluding, fourth panel; then in 1837, Balzac published what became part three, La Confidence des Ruggieri; and finally, in 1842-44, what was part two and titled Le Martyr calviniste.  The novelist added the long introduction for the same edition in 1842-44, all of which, with many intervening retouches, he grouped under a collective rubric, initially Catherine de Médicis expliquée, and, in 1846, Sur Catherine de Médicis, the title that it bears today.  This history might seem to justify the belief that there could be no visceral order, and Cazauran concludes in a tone that brooks little discussion: “[L]es promesses du titre ne sont pas tout à fait tenues, et l’on voit apparaître . . . les hésitations, les difficultés, les divagations du romancier face à ce personnage dont il prétendit, quand il construisit enfin l’ensemble qu’il lui voua, avoir voulu démontrer toute la grandeur” (484).

On considering Cazauran’s admirable background and her sure control of an impressive amount of material from the nineteenth-century, the Revolutionary period, the sixteenth century, and the manuscripts, not to mention the many differences in Balzac’s various versions, it is not difficult to understand why she arrived at her vision of “récits disparates” (357). She reveals many if not all of the sources of Balzac’s second-hand history. She follows the author as he shuffles the texts here and there, changing numerous passages, adding developments, deleting others, trying to combine the various pieces in ways that would at the very least extract more money from his long-suffering publishers.  Balzac regularly sold the same piece several times by packaging it differently. I do not doubt, however, that she is correct to assume that the novelist had little or no idea of where he was going when he first set pen to paper in 1830 and composed “Les Deux Rêves,” which would, some years later, become the concluding panel in his four part novel, Sur Catherine de Médicis.

There are times when the extensive, extratextual knowledge of someone like Nicole Cazauran can get in the way of an appropriate understanding.  I would rather concentrate on the novel instead of on its “genetics” or process of creation and as much as possible allow the final version itself to create the image of its world.  For modern readers of the novel such an approach produces an experience of considerable power, perhaps even horror.  I want to suggest that at some point before Balzac finished the creation of this remarkably successful though appallingly immoral work, he knew exactly what he was about.  I argue not on the basis of the text’s genesis, but rather on what we discover from the definitive text.

Despite beginning with an impassioned defense of Catherine, the long segment that was first called a “Préface,” then an “Introduction” retains a certain distance from the object of its attention, Catherine de Medici.  She was much maligned, the narrator maintains, like Napoleon, Falstaff, Rabelais, and many others.  She was turned into an ogre by those who fail to understand how important it was for someone to exercise power and by the malicious mendaciousness of the Protestants.  While the narrator does not exactly dismiss the 1572 massacres of Saint-Bartholomew’s night, when thousands of Protestants were killed at the order of Charles IX and the instigation of Catherine, he equates them with the explosive, revolutionary blood bath known as the Terror: “Les massacres de la Révolution répondent aux massacres de la Saint-Barthélemy.  Le peuple devenu roi a fait contre la noblesse et le Roi ce que le Roi et la noblesse ont fait contre les insurgés du seizième siècle.”9 Balzac’s narrator gives Catherine credit for maintaining the crown of France, and points out that as long as she lived, the Valois family retained the throne.

The other three-quarters of the “Introduction” offers what the narrator calls a “précis” of Catherine, starting with her family history and ending with the death of her husband, Henri II.  When the girl was only fourteen her family bought her a place in the royal family of France as the Duke d’Orleans’s wife.  Eventually, though unexpectedly, since no one ever thought that her husband the duke would become king, the arrangement made her the spouse of Henri II and the Queen of France. The fact that she was beautiful was not enough to gain her a place in the Valois family.  François I was especially attracted by her dowry of 100,000 gold ducats and other jewels and furnishings of at least equal value.  And so began a life of observation, indeed spying, a life behind the scenes, at first of necessity and then by choice.  Denigrated as the daughter of grocers and physicians (Medicis, though they be) and blamed for her husband’s sterility, she saw herself publicly neglected for Henri’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers.  Medically resolving Henri’s sterility did little for Catherine, since Henri II simply kept her pregnant and out of the way.  “Les onze grossesses et les dix enfants de Catherine . . . laissait libre [Henri II] de passer son temps avec Diane de Poitiers” (195).  Although Catherine was unobtrusive, she observed the whirlwind of forces swirling about the court, and she developed a political strategy that never changed: “d’opposer les grands du royaume les uns aux autres, et d’établir l’autorité royale sur leurs ruines” (197), the Guises against the Bourbons, and both against the Protestants.

Balzac’s second panel, Le martyr calviniste, opens in 1560 with a vision of Paris.  We watch as Christophe Lecamus, the twenty-two year old, only son of a successful furrier and a convert to Protestantism, meets with Chaudieu, La Renaudie, and the Prince de Condé, all ardent subversives, determined to bring the new, Calvinist faith into power.  The young man agrees to carry a secret message to the queen mother.  The king, François II, has been bewitched by his young wife, Marie Stuart, who is in the grip of the powerful Guise family, thus preventing Catherine from enjoying the authority she has so long coveted.  Since she is “sans autre passion que celle du pouvoir” (275), the conspirators believe she will be delighted to turn to the Huguenots.  The unpaid balance of her account with Christophe’s father serves the young man as an excuse to go to Blois, where he passes her the message about the conspiracy.  But Marie Stuart’s eyes are sharp.  She catches Catherine in the process of hiding the papers.  Catherine saves herself by denying any knowledge of the content, and thus betrays Christophe.  The courageous young man reveals nothing under torture, however, and the Prince de Condé’s participation is kept secret, though the conspiracy is broken and many are executed at Amboise.  Christophe’s desperate father comes in search of him, with no success whatsoever.  Soon, the young Lecamus is moved to the prison of Orléans, where the Guises plan to use him to reveal the suspected truth about the Prince de Condé.  But François II is injured, and Catherine manages to prevent Ambroise Paré from attending to him, thus insuring that the king dies.  Catherine then takes charge as regent during the minority of her next son, Charles IX, finally able to assuage the “soif de domination qui [la] dévorait” (384).  The grateful queen mother releases the young Lecamus, who, no longer naïve about political realities and now back in the fold of the Catholic church, moves into a predominant position in the Parliament.

The title of the section, Le martyr calviniste, which was for a while a novel in its own right, makes perfect sense.  The young Lecamus risks his life in the political turmoil of the day, and is richly rewarded by the queen mother.  HadLe martyr calviniste been titled, Sur Catherine de Médicis, however, the second panel would be more difficult to understand.  Catherine is by no means central, though of course she is a necessary adjunct to the young man’s story.  Indeed, although she is less highlighted in this second panel than she was in the “Introduction,” because of her covert political power, she is the determining factor understood to be pervasive.

In the third section, La confidence des Ruggieri, Catherine appears almost not at all.  The entire sequence seems at first to concern Charles IX in 1573, the year after the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre (377), as he talks of wrenching the reins of power back from his mother, while delving into the occult sciences.  Perhaps not until he confronts the astrologer-alchemist Ruggieri brothers is his powerlessness highlighted.  Charles threatens to have them put to death, but the brothers are not afraid, though whether their confidence comes from the power residing in their horoscopes or in their employer, Catherine, is not clear.  Certainly, the king is “piqué d’être si peu de chose” (436).  “[I]l trouvait sa royauté matérielle petite devant l’immense royauté intellectuelle du vieux Laurent Ruggieri” (436).  The possibility that the astrologer and the alchemist may dabble in poisons is opened, and the reader is left to wonder whether the guilt for “deux têtes tranchées” (450) that Catherine accepts might be a figural admission of poisoning her own sons.  It would not be the first time the Medici family resorted to poison.  While it becomes clear that the Ruggieri brothers are not completely candid with the young king, there seems little question that the real subject of this section, as of the preceding one, is Catherine de Médici.  Through most of this portion of the text, however, she is personally absent.  We see her through a window, as she and her twenty-four year old son, King Charles IX, watch each other.  Later, she waits in vain for him to accompany her home (392).  Then, while on his way to meet some conspirators, he realizes that she might be watching him (400), as indeed she apparently is (404).  Finally, she makes a sudden, ghostly appearance before him in his work shop: “[S]a mère . . . se dessina dans le crépuscule comme un fantôme” (404).  Still, despite her virtual absence, we see her effects everywhere and the quest for power remains central.

In the very last section, “Les Deux Rêves,” Catherine appears only in Robespierre’s dream.  In the course of the four sections comprising Sur Catherine de Médicis, then, she appears less and less frequently.  While the reader knows she is in the background, the narration focuses on the events and actions concerning the conspiracy.  “Les Deux Rêves” assumes enormous importance as the concluding panel.  The story is explicitly dated as having taken place in 1786, that is, some years before the French Revolution’s Terror of 1792-94.  When Balzac’s text indicates that it was a spectral Catherine that suggested and, in effect, justified Robespierre’s and Marat’s attempt to kill all nobles and all those in opposition to their utopian dream, one begins to understand the terrible power that she has been accumulating and exercising through the novel.

Catherine is never able to exercise authority in her own name.  She always plays a hidden, subordinate role, and the novel focuses on the multiple forces that dominate her, that bear on (Sur) her, as she gradually disappears from the text, eventually resembling a specter, and finally reappearing in a dream.  Nonetheless, she learns from her constant study of the court to manipulate the various factions.  The text repeatedly calls attention to her “dissimulation” and to her “masque d’abbesse, hautain et macéré, blafard et néanmoins plein de profondeur, discret et inquisiteur” (388).  Her power, and the power that she maintains in the name of her Valois sons, comes from her scheming ability to set the opposing factions against one another.

Admiratrice de la maxime: Diviser pour régner, elle venait d’apprendre, depuis douze ans, à opposer constamment une force à une autre.  Aussitôt qu’elle prit en main la bride des affaires, elle fut obligée d’y entretenir la discorde pour neutraliser les forces de deux maisons rivales et sauver la couronne. . . .  Catherine inventa ce jeu de bascule politique . . . en opposant tour à tour les calvinistes aux Guise, et les Guise aux calvinistes.  Après avoir opposé ces deux religions l’une à l’autre, au cœur de la nation, Catherine opposa le duc d’Anjou à Charles IX.  Après avoir opposé les choses, elle opposa les hommes en conservant les nœuds de tous leurs intérêts entre ses mains.

She uses information, implication, and suggestion.  Sometimes her control comes from saying nothing, as when she learns that there are assassins after the Guises and remains mute; sometimes it comes from conveying information, as she does when she makes her ghostly appearance to Charles IX and paralyzes him with information about another conspiracy.  Despite her always subordinate role, however, the narrator is correct to say, “[L]a figure de Catherine de Médicis apparaît-elle comme celle d’un grand Roi” (170).  Everyone seemingly stands above her, but from her subordinate position, her power is consummate. She rules over the king of France, and she manipulates Calvin, “ce roi des idées” (338).  When Charles IX calls Laurent Ruggieri “le roi des sorciers” he objects: “Vous êtes le roi des hommes, et je suis le roi des idées” (436).  Given that the speaker is in Catherine’s employ, and that Charles IX seems incapable of taking charge of the kingdom, there is little doubt about who really wields the power.  Despite her decreasing textual presence, as the reader progresses across the four sections, she enjoys increasing authority.

The potentially horrifying aspect of all this grows from the realization that Balzac is not condemning Catherine for the massacre of the Protestants.  Indeed, the queen mother seems to view Saint Bartholomew’s night as a badge of honor, reducing what historians estimate at 10,000 murders to “deux cents manants sacrifiés à propos” (453).  Nor does either author or narrator condemn Robespierre or Marat.  To the contrary, when Robespierre chastens Catherine with her “crime,” she replies that it was nothing but a “malheur.”  She has no remorse for the death of so many people, but rather she regrets that the orders were imperfectly carried out, so that it was consequently unsuccessful.  “Si le 25 août il n’était pas resté l’ombre d’un huguenot en France, je serais demeurée jusque dans la postérité la plus reculée comme une belle image de la Providence” (449).  Though Charles IX feels guilt—”J’ai assez d’exécutions sur la conscience,” he says—she has not a hint of contrition for the decision, only that it was not carried out properly.  Robespierre pauses in his account.  “Je croyais respirer la fumée du sang de je ne sais quelles victimes.  Catherine avait grandi.  Elle était là comme un mauvais génie, et il me sembla qu’elle voulait pénétrer dans ma conscience pour s’y reposer” (450).  How can she justify such a cold-blooded decision to murder thousands?  She unhesitatingly calls on the previously mentioned doctrine of una fides, unus Dominus (173)—”[I]l fallait dans l’Etat un seul Dieu, une seule Foi, un seul maître” (450)—and points out that she is indifferent to the religious constitution of the nation’s faith.  It could be either Protestant or Catholic.  What was and is important, she insists, is unification and authority.  Clearly the widely discussed turn of phrase advanced by someone of Balzac’s day, fits her view of the massacre.  It was a “rigueur salutaire.”10

The thought that she may be molding the conscience of one of the leaders under whom the Revolutionary Tribunals condemned thousands of people may cause some trepidation.  Robespierre notes, “Je trouvai tout à coup en moi-même une partie de moi qui adoptait les doctrines atroces déduites par cette Italienne” (454).  Whether because of Catherine or not, however, when we leave Balzac’s novel and consider history, we know that Robespierre was one of the prime movers of the blood bath that marked the French revolution.  We do not know how many people were executed during the Terror.  In France as a whole, it may have been as few as 7,000 or as many as 42,000.  Had Balzac’s Marat, who follows Robespierre’s dream with one where he amputates a gangrenous leg, been given his way, he would have killed at least 200,000.

Today, such figures may not startle.  Five times the number that Marat would have dispatched were slaughtered in one three day period in Indonesia.  Some have perhaps been inured by a parade of “final solutions,” “killing fields,” “ethnic cleansings,” of untold numbers who die of politically organized starvation.  One might, however, be disturbed that the novel is neither neutral nor in any way weighted against Catherine’s terrible formula for political success.  The few adjectives— “mauvais génie,” “doctrines atroces”—get lost in the sweep of the argument and have no moral suasion.  It is certainly discouraging that Balzac, who had heard in detail and repeatedly what it was like during the Revolution, would not take a moral position against such egregious bloodletting, or, at worst, would have recognized pragmatically that such decisions to wipe out the opposition never succeed.  There is always an Orestes who lives to wreak revenge.  And even in the case of success, no one would doubt that the next generation would invent another opposition.  History establishes that humanity does not change in this regard.

Cazauran finds some excuse for Balzac’s apparent lack of sympathy in noting that the author was reflecting some contemporary controversy (“L’Apologie” 875).  I would perhaps agree were it not that Balzac’s text makes very clear that there are equally difficult problems in mid-nineteenth-century France:

“Qu’est-ce que la France de 1840? un pays exclusivement occupé d’intérêts matériels, sans patriotisme, sans conscience, où le pouvoir est sans force, où l’Election, fruit du libre arbitre et de la liberté politique, n’élève que les médiocrités, où la force brutale est devenue nécessaire contre les violences populaires, et où la discussion, étendue aux moindres choses, étouffe toute action du corps politique; où l’argent domine toutes les questions, et où l’individualisme, produit horrible de la division à l’infini des héritages qui supprime la famille, dévorera tout, même la nation, que l’égoïsme livrera quelque jour à l’invasion.” (173)

And the narrator suggests the “solution” that Catherine will propose to Robespierre in “Les Deux Rêves”: “Tout pouvoir, légitime ou illégitime, doit se défendre quand il est attaqué. . . . [Le gouvernement] doit-il tuer ceux qui le veulent tuer?  Les massacres de la Révolution répondent aux massacres de la Saint-Barthélemy” (171).  Perhaps nowhere else is Balzac’s extreme, reactionary monarchism so clear.

The importance of Sur Catherine de Médicis, however, lies elsewhere: in its structure.  Previously, there had been numerous experiments with the way works of art were put together.  Hugo took great delight in indulging in prosaicism, in mixing the sublime and the grotesque, in offending the rules ofbienséance or decorum by having a king hide in a broom closet.  In “Réponse à un acte d’accusation,” he exults in what he had done, in effect, to shunt aside Aristotle’s literary prescriptions.  It was an open revolt against accepted canons of acceptable art.  Other writers were not far behind.  Stendhal seems to have organized La Chartreuse de Parme around a passive character who is central only because all the other characters focus on him.  The novel stands in sharp contrast to Aristotle’s dictum: “Imitative artists represent men in action” (On the Art of Poetry ch. 2).  While there is action in Stendhal’s work, Fabrice, the “hero,” is no more than tangentially involved.  He is certainly not in control.

Other writers attacked the accepted view of plot.11 Through the eighteenth century there was little controversy about narrative.  It was as Aristotle defined it, “the first essential” (On the Art of Poetry ch. 6). Writers like Marivaux might focus on character, but the character was revealed in an Aristotelian “ordered combination of incidents” (ch. 6).  With the Romantics, however, the situation changed.  Heroes like René and Adolphe do nothing of significance, and the works that represent them do little but project an image of their characters.  What plot there is moves to the background so as to illuminate the particular cast of the main characters.  Balzac was especially attracted to organizing his creations around thought, which Aristotle listed among the primary features of tragedy as third in importance, after plot and character.  Furthermore, while it was most common for narrative to be arranged by chronology or causality and to be at the forefront of our attention—reappearing characters that continue a preceding action help link scenes—Balzac’s plots tend to begin and end at odd moments.  To link episodes he depended on repeated narrative patterns, rather than narrations, on reiterated symbols, images, motifs, types, and themes.12

Unlike other of Balzac’s disjointed works (I think of Histoire des Treize, Jésus-Christ en Flandre, or Autre étude de femme), Sur Catherine de Médicis is organized by the Catherine’s gradual accumulation of power, until in the fourth panel the reader understands that from the beginning it is power itself that has remained central.  Sur Catherine does not resemble the common run of novels, however, since its plot remains subordinate and in the background.  Only after readers have advanced well into the novel do they understand the appropriateness of the work’s title: Catherine’s quest for power is always in focus, whether she is there or not, and however weighty the forces acting on her and however much she may remain behind the scenes or above the fray.  This is the story of the queen’s success at gaining then exercising brute force while occupying secondary roles.  Seldom does the real plot rise to the surface, and then only briefly.  She understood—a second lesson that she should perhaps have explained to Robespierre—that if one is the ruler behind the throne, the apex of the power pyramid may be replaced without changing anything of any importance.  Real power comes not from holding the office of authority and the adulation of the masses.  It comes from the ability to pull the levers that cause and direct events.

Just as the character of Sur Catherine de Médicis who embodies power remains in obscurity, so the novel configures hidden power and the suggestion that if it is behind the scenes it is protected.  It is made weaker when its permutations are obvious to the public.  The story of Catherine whose unseen hand is everywhere evident mirrors the message; her desire for unmitigated power is motif and motive.  Because François II resisted her control, she saw to it that he was removed.  When Charles IX begins to resist her domination, he has only a few months to live.  Catherine, however, remains behind the throne, ready to work her will through others.  While there is no doubt that plot is “the dynamic, sequential element” of narrative, as Scholes and Kellog would have it,13 we seldom see either the action or the way it connects to other events.  When the concluding section of Balzac’s novel represents a spectral Catherine who wears the Saint Bartholomew’s night massacre as a crown of glory and then initiates Robespierre’s and Marat’s subsequent attempt to execute all their enemies, one understands the terrible force that the queen mother has been accumulating and wielding through the course of the novel.  One might gain comfort from the fact that Saint Bartholomew’s night and the Terror failed in their objectives, were it not for the final realization that Balzac’s text suggests a similar solution for the problems the novelist sees in his own day.  Consequently, Sur Catherine de Médicis exemplifies “un order supérieur et caché” both in its organizing plot and in its hidden subject—Catherine’s occult control and the advocacy of a brutal use of power.

Perhaps curiously, though the nineteenth-century novel is known for its “realism,” for its attempt to reproduce the reality of a fast changing, confusing, disturbing society, and thus served as the whipping boy of such twentieth-century theorists as Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Ricardou, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and others across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, novelists frequently left the first, mimetic representations of plot and character to create analogical patterns of considerable power. However much nineteenth-century novelists may infringe on other genres, by exploiting the essay as Balzac does in Sur Catherine, theatre (or spectacle), and lyric they were attempting to surpass the Aristotelian categories of plot and character to argue on the level of theme, of allusion, of analogy, of symbolism for a deeper understanding of reality that could perhaps not be expressed in simple terms but which were required to assure that the future would indeed move progressively forward toward a new heaven on earth. When Proust’s protagonist wanted to express his joy at being free to walk in the midst of a glorious nature, he found language incapable of expressing his feelings and was reduced to “‘Zut, zut, zut, zut.’ Mais en meme temps,” the narrator goes on to say, “je sentis que mon devoir eût été de ne pas m’en tenir à ces mots opaques et de tâcher de voir plus clair dans mon ravissement.”14 Like his predecessors, who struggled mightily to find a way of expressing truth that went well beyond brute reality, in later volumes the narrator learned to put language under pressure.

Sur Catherine de Médicis opens another insight into the ways relatively long, literary prose fictions vary the basic generic definition to produce more exact, if not more beautiful meanings. For most novels, the main character or the plot or both provide the “conveyance” of what the author wishes to communicate. Indeed, Sur Catherine has a plot and a main character, though Catherine’s veritable activity is so often occulted behind the scenes that the reader can hardly avoid divining that she is not the main conveyance, however important she may be. She is but one of the several characters and hers but one of a number of stories that struggle to rise to the surface and demonstrate what it is to take the reins of power. I suggest that although the plot of Catherine’s life takes a subordinate role in the course of the book, it marvelously illustrates the desire for absolute power exemplified by every major character in each of the four parts. While one might say that the theme of power becomes the central sequence, a sort of thematic plot, as it rises above and with increasing focus provides the main strand of meaning that unifies the novel, it becomes the novel’s major conveyance of meaning. The queen and her activity add to the significant thematic movement to distinguish the novel from a short story cycle, for it is much more than theme and imagery alone. As Balzac, Zola, Barbey, Flaubert and many others, put language under pressure, surrounding their major conveyances with analogical intensifiers that create contextual patterns, we catch a vivid vision of what it must be like to wrestle with an angel.


1. See, especially, Mary Donaldson-Evans, Medical Examinations: Dissecting the Doctor in French Narrative Prose, 1857-1894 (Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2000) 22-40; Max Aprile, “L’aveugle et sa signification dans Madame Bovary,”Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France 76 (1976): 385-92; P. M. Wetherill, “Madame Bovary‘s Blind Man: Symbolism in Flaubert,” Romanic Review 61 (1970): 35-42.

2. Allan H. Pasco, “Myth, Metaphor and Meaning in Germinal,French Review46 (1973): 739-49.

3. See, e.g., Maurice A. Lecuyer, Balzac et Rabelais (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1956); Maurice Serval, “Autour d’un roman de Balzac: Le Lys dans la vallée,”Revue d’Histoire Littéraire 33 (1926): 370-89, 565-94; Nancy K. Miller, “Tristes Triangles: Le lys dans la vallée and Its Intertext,” Pre-text/Text/Context: Essays on Nineteenth-Century French Literature, ed. Robert L. Mitchell (Columbus, Ohio State Univ. Press, 1980), 67-77; Raymond Lebègue, “De Marguerite de Navarre à Honoré de Balzac,” Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres July 1957: 251-56.

4. René Bray, La formation de la doctrine classique en France (Lausanne: Payot, l931) 352-53.  As my colleague, Van Kelly, suggested to me, Renaissance writers may well have learned this kind of structure from Ovid’sMetamorphoses.

5. J. D. Hubert, Essai d’exégèse racinienne: Les secrets témoins (Paris: Nizet, 1956); David Lee Rubin, Higher, Hidden Order: Design and Meaning in the Odes of Malherbe (Chapel Hill: U of NC P, 1972); The Knot of Artifice: A Poetic of the French Lyric in the Early 17th Century (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1981;A Pact with Silence: Art and Thought in La Fontaine’s Fables (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1991).

6. Albert-Marie Schmidt, “Préface,” Sur Catherine de Médicis by Balzac, vol. 11 of L’Œuvre de Balzac (Paris: Club Français du Livre, 1955) 9.  For a similar and equally unsupported statement, see, Albert Prioult, Balzac avant La Comédie humaine: Contribution à l’étude de la genèse de son œuvre (Paris: G. Gourville, 1936) 290.

7. Claudie Bernard, “Balzac et le roman historique: Sur Catherine de Médicis: une histoire paradoxale,” Poétique 71 (1987): 335; see, also, Peter G. Christensen: “Balzac is not able to achieve a unified narrative, only a four-part hybrid”—”Yeats and Balzac’s Sur Catherine de Médicis,” Modern Language Studies 19.4 (1989): 11.

8. Nicole Cazauran, Catherine de Médicis et son temps dans La Comédie humaine (Geneva: Droz, 1976).

9. Honoré de Balzac, Sur Catherine de Médicis, vol. 11 of La Comédie humaine, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1980) 171. All further references will be to this text and cited parenthetically.

10. Discussed by Nicole Cazauran, “Sur l’apologie balzacienne de la saint-Barthélemy,” Revue d’Histoire Littéraire 73.5 (1973): 864-65.

11. See, e.g., Albert J. George, “Théophile Gautier and the Romantic Short Story,” L’Esprit Créateur, 3 (1963): 110-17; Allan H. Pasco, “The Unheroic Mode: Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme,” Philological Quarterly 70 (1991): 361-78.

12. See, Allan H. Pasco, Balzacian Montage: Configuring La Comédie humaine (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991) esp. 46-98, 125-48.

13. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellog, The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford UP, 1966) 207.

14. Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu, ed. Jean-Yves Tadié,4 vols., Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1987-89) 1.153.

Works Cited

Aristotle, Horace, Longinus. Classical Literary Criticism. Tr. T. S. Dorsch. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

Balzac, Honoré de. Sur Catherine de Médicis. Vol. 11. La Comédie humaine. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.

Bernard, Claudie. “Balzac et le roman historique: Sur Catherine de Médicis: une histoire paradoxale.” Poétique 71 (1987): 333-55.

Bray, René. La Formation de la doctrine classique en France. Lausanne: Payot, l931. 352-53.

Cazauran, Nicole. Catherine de Médicis et son temps dans La Comédie humaine. Geneva: Droz, 1976.

Cazauran, Nicole. “Sur l’apologie balzacienne de la saint-Barthélemy.” Revue d’Histoire Littéraire 73.5 (1973): 859-75.

Christensen, Peter G. “Yeats and Balzac’s Sur Catherine de Médicis.” Modern Language Studies 19.4 (1989): 11-30.

George, Albert J. “Théophile Gautier and the Romantic Short Story.” L’Esprit Créateur 3 (1963): 110-17.

Hubert, J. D. Essai d’exégèse racinienne: Les secrets témoins. Paris: Nizet, 1956.

Lebègue, Raymond. “De Marguerite de Navarre à Honoré de Balzac.” Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres July 1957: 251-56.

Lecuyer, Maurice A. Balzac et Rabelais. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1956.

Miller, Nancy K. “Tristes Triangles: Le lys dans la vallée and Its Intertext.” Pre-text/Text/Context: Essays on Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Ed. Robert L. Mitchell. Columbus, Ohio State Univ. Press, 1980. 67-77.

Prioult, Albert. Balzac avant La Comédie humaine: Contribution à l’étude de la genèse de son œuvre. Paris: G. Gourville, 1936.

Proust, Marcel. A la recherché du temps perdu. 4 vols. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1987-89.

Rubin, David Lee. Higher, Hidden Order: Design and Meaning in the Odes of Malherbe. Chapel Hill: U of NC P, 1972.

____. The Knot of Artifice: A Poetic of the French Lyric in the Early 17th Century. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1981.

____. A Pact with Silence: Art and Thought in La Fontaine’s Fables. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1991.

Schmidt, Albert-Marie. “Préface.” Sur Catherine de Médicis. By Balzac. Vol. 11.L’Œuvre de Balzac. Paris: Club Français du Livre, 1955. 9-14.

Scholes , Robert, and Robert Kellog. The Nature of Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1966.

Serval, Maurice. “Autour d’un roman de Balzac: Le lys dans la vallée.” Revue d’Histoire Littéraire 33 (1926): 370-89, 565-94.

#Allan Pasco#Occulting Balzac's Catherine and the Nature of Novels#Vol. 8 Issue 1 Fall 2009